History Podcasts

Magna Carta

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta or 'Great Charter' was an agreement imposed on King John of England (r. 1199-1216) on 15 June 1215 by rebellious barons in order to limit his power and prevent arbitrary royal acts like land confiscation and unreasonable taxes. Henceforward, the king would have to consult a defined body of laws and customs before making such declarations.

The Magna Carta ensured that all freemen were protected from royal officers and had the right to a fair trial. Consequently, the charter became a symbol of the rule of law as the ultimate sovereign. Although not entirely successful in its aims, the charter did permit further constitutional developments in England in subsequent centuries and it provided inspiration for similar models of limited monarchy in other European states.

Background: Kings Richard & John

King John, also known as John Lackland, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of England's most unpopular monarchs. Reigning from 1199, John had previously tried to wrest the throne from his brother and fellow Angevin Richard I of England (r. 1189-1199) while he was abroad. Richard the Lionheart had been busy in the Holy Land with the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and was then captured by Henry VI, the new Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1191-1197) while on his return journey to England. John seized his chance and tried to claim the throne for himself but in the ensuing civil war, forces loyal to Richard managed to hold on to such strategic castles as Windsor Castle and Nottingham and John was defeated. Eventually freed after the payment of an enormous ransom, Richard retook his rightful place on the throne of England in 1194. As it turned out, Richard, in any case without children of his own, nominated John as his heir before his own death in battle in Aquitaine in April 1199.

King John was not lacking in imagination in creating new forms of taxation or ways to fleece the rich so as to fill up the state coffers.

John might have got the crown he had always wanted in 1199 but he had an immediate struggle to keep it. In nominating John, Richard I had by-passed Prince Arthur, the son of John's older brother George. Arthur's claims were supported by Philip II of France (r. 1180-1223), who had battled with Richard in the previous decade over Angevin-controlled lands in France. John ordered the murder of Arthur in 1203 and Philip responded by conquering most of Aquitaine in 1204-5.

To add to his troubles, John also had a major spat with the Church. Disagreeing with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) over who should be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king appointed his own man and the Pope responded by encouraging Philip II to invade England. In the meantime, the Pope ordered the closure of all churches in England and excommunicated John in 1209. The idea that the king was chosen by God to rule, the so-called divine right of kings, was looking a little problematic for John to use as a basis for his authority now that the Church had abandoned him. In 1213 John was forced to capitulate and accept the Pope's nomination for archbishop.

The Barons

John's oppressive regime with its repeated acts of tyranny, his cavalier attitude to the divine right of kings in all matters, and his military failures, especially the loss of Normandy as a result of the 1214 Battle of Bouvines, brought about a major uprising of the English barons (the large estate owners), many of whom had lost estates in France. Worst of all was the incessant taxes John imposed which he needed to pay for the campaigns against the French king. As with Richard before him, John was not lacking in imagination in creating new forms of taxation or ways to fleece the rich so as to fill up the state coffers. The king increased certain taxes such as those due when a noble's daughter was to be married as well as those on towns and merchants. The tax payable in order to receive an inheritance was increased, too. The Crown confiscated the lands of those nobles who died without heirs and the same policy was applied to church lands. Another particularly contentious decision was for the king to move many legal cases from the baron's own courts to his royal ones (although the process had actually started during the reign of John's father, Henry II, r. 1154-1189). The barons gained a handy income from court fines and so fewer cases meant a drop in their revenue.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

With all of these factors combining to create a deeply unpopular monarch, the barons demanded constitutional reform. The barons, instead of forming armies to help the king regain Normandy, as he requested, acted collectively and marched to London where their numbers were swelled by discontented merchants. With the barons in control of London and a number of them even renouncing their oath of allegiance to the king and, instead supporting the nobleman Robert Fitzwalter (1162-1235), John had little choice but to give in to their demands. The barons thus obliged the king to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, upon which a constitution was based that curbed the power of the monarch and protected the rights of the barons.

The primary aim of the Magna Carta was to ensure the king did not impinge on the rights of feudal lords.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was signed and sealed by King John at Runnymede, just outside London in June 1215. The document set out to limit royal power (including agents of the king's authority such as sheriffs) which seemed to have been growing without check in the previous decades.

The Magna Carta contained 63 clauses which set out the following key changes:

  • It defined the limits of royal power over the people according to established feudal principles.
  • It obliged the monarch to consult the barons in a Great Council before levying taxes.
  • It guaranteed all freemen (but not serfs) protection from royal officers.
  • It gave to all freemen the right to a fair legal process if they faced criminal charges.
  • It permitted merchants to travel into and out of England without restriction.
  • It stipulated that widows did not have to pay anything to receive their husband's estate (dower) and they were not forced to remarry.

It is perhaps important to remember that in 13th-century England 'freemen' constituted less than 25% of the population and, in any case, the barons were not concerned with them but rather with their own position. The primary aim of the Magna Carta, then, was to ensure the king did not impinge on the rights of feudal lords. This was expressed by the barons explicitly insisting on their involvement in the system of taxation and their independence in building, inhabiting and controlling castles.

Barons' Wars

To ensure the king did what he had signed to do, a committee of 24 barons was formed to monitor his rule thereafter. However, the very acceptance of the Magna Carta did not appease all rebel barons and neither did King John turn himself into a constitutional sovereign overnight; indeed, he repudiated the Charter before his royal seal had barely had time to harden. The barons did not fulfill their side of the bargain either and refused to hand over London until John implemented the terms of the charter. It was a stalemate situation.

John appealed to Pope Innocent III who, in a turnaround of policy and support, declared the Magna Carte illegal and invalid in a papal bull. There followed between 1215 and 1217 a series of conflicts known as the Barons' Wars (there would be others later in the century). Some barons even supported Prince Louis, the future King Louis VIII of France (r. 1223-1226). However, the rebels were heavily defeated at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217 and the First Barons' War came to an end with the Treaty of Kingston-on-Thames in September 1217. Although neither the barons nor King John had wholly adhered to the terms of the Magna Carta, it was confirmed in 1225 by John's son and successor Henry III (r. 1216-1272) on his coronation, perhaps even as a condition of it. Although hardly causing an immediate swing from absolute monarchy to constitutional government, the Magna Carta, nevertheless, was a major step on that road and, certainly, it prevented future English kings or queens from ruling entirely as absolute monarchs.


In subsequent centuries the Magna Carta became a rallying point for all future calls to curb the power of monarchs in England (and elsewhere) and these movements eventually led to the formation of such now-familiar institutions like parliament, ensuring that the rule of a monarch was, at least to some degree, conducted according to the wishes and benefit of their subjects. The Magna Carta has even been the inspiration for many more recent documents and declarations which have set out principles of law and government. These include the 1791 United States Bill of Rights and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Back in Britain, four of the charter's clauses are still valid as English law (the others having been repealed or superseded by later legislation). These are the clause protecting the independence of the church, another clause protecting certain rights of London and other towns, and, the most famous part of all the Charter nowadays, clauses number 39 and 40:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Today there are four existing copies of the Magna Carta with two in the British Library in London, one in Salisbury Cathedral and another in Lincoln Castle.

Magna Carta - History

One of the world's most famous documents, the Magna Carta, has been repaired and is now on display at the National Archives. This version of the Magna Carta was written over 715 years ago in England. It is owned by David Rubinstein who purchased it from billionaire Ross Perot in 2007 for $21.3 million.

When Rubinstein purchased the document he wanted it to stay in the United States and be restored. He also wanted the Magna Carta on display for all to see. He agreed to lend it to the National Archives and to fund the historic document's restoration. David provided $13.5 million in funding for the restoration of the document as well as the glass case and the gallery where the document will be displayed.

The restoration process was detailed and complex. Conservators (people who work on old documents) carefully removed old patches and glue from the Magna Carta. They also filled in holes with special handmade papers from Korea and Japan.

The display case where the Magna Carta is kept is also special. It is filled with humidified argon gas which will help protect the document and keep it from contact with oxygen, which can be harmful to the paper. The document rests on special cotton paper and the lighting in the room is filtered so harmful rays won't cause further damage all to keep the newly restored document in perfect condition.

The Magna Carta is considered the first document that guaranteed the rights of the average citizen from the king of England. It set the groundwork for English common law and, later, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The original Magna Carta was written in 1215 when the people demanded certain rights from King John of England. It stated that the king could not impose his will on any citizen and that "freemen" could not be punished except through the law. The copy on display was actually written 1297 and has the seal of King Edward I of England.

Before the American Revolution, the English colonies in America asserted to King George that they had the same rights as any Englishman under the Magna Carta. However, King George said they didn't. The colonists felt they had no choice but to break away and form their own country in order to protect their rights.

King John puts his seal on Magna Carta

Following a revolt by the English nobility against his rule, King John puts his royal seal on Magna Carta, or “the Great Charter.” The document, essentially a peace treaty between John and his barons, guaranteed that the king would respect feudal rights and privileges, uphold the freedom of the church, and maintain the nation’s laws. Although more a reactionary than a progressive document in its day, Magna Carta was seen as a cornerstone in the development of democratic England by later generations.

John was enthroned as king of England following the death of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Hearted, in 1199. King John’s reign was characterized by failure. He lost the duchy of Normandy to the French king and taxed the English nobility heavily to pay for his foreign misadventures. He quarreled with Pope Innocent III and sold church offices to build up the depleted royal coffers. Following the defeat of a campaign to regain Normandy in 1214, Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury, called on the disgruntled barons to demand a charter of liberties from the king.

In 1215, the barons rose up in rebellion against the king’s abuse of feudal law and custom. John, faced with a superior force, had no choice but to give in to their demands. Earlier kings of England had granted concessions to their feudal barons, but these charters were vaguely worded and issued voluntarily. The document drawn up for John in June 1215, however, forced the king to make specific guarantees of the rights and privileges of his barons and the freedom of the church. On June 15, 1215, John met the barons at Runnymede on the Thames and set his seal to the Articles of the Barons, which after minor revision was formally issued as Magna Carta.

The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses and dealt mainly with feudal concerns that had little impact outside 13th century England. However, the document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe, thus precluding any future claim to absolutism by the English monarch. Of greatest interest to later generations was clause 39, which stated that “no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised𠉮xcept by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” This clause has been celebrated as an early guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus and inspired England’s Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).

In immediate terms, Magna Carta was a failure𠅌ivil war broke out the same year, and John ignored his obligations under the charter. Upon his death in 1216, however, Magna Carta was reissued with some changes by his son, King Henry III, and then reissued again in 1217. That year, the rebellious barons were defeated by the king’s forces. In 1225, Henry III voluntarily reissued Magna Carta a third time, and it formally entered English statute law.

Magna Carta has been subject to a great deal of historical exaggeration it did not establish Parliament, as some have claimed, nor more than vaguely allude to the liberal democratic ideals of later centuries. However, as a symbol of the sovereignty of the rule of law, it was of fundamental importance to the constitutional development of England. Four original copies of Magna Carta of 1215 exist today: one in Lincoln Cathedral, one in Salisbury Cathedral, and two in the British Museum.

Here you can see archive material related to Magna Carta. Anything you have and want to be featured here? Please contact the webmaster (see the form under the About menu item). Various Magna Carta fans have provided their collected photos,&hellip Read More » MAGNA CARTA ARCHIVES

Over the years many musicians played in Magna Carta, all with their own specific talents. Some names return from time to time, but there’s only one name that’s featured in ALL line-ups: Chris Simpson! NOTE: a large part of the&hellip Read More » VARIOUS MAGNA CARTA LINE-UPS 1969-2020

My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surreywill be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was signed in June 1215 between the barons of Medieval England and King John. ‘Magna Carta’ is Latin and means “Great Charter”. The Magna Carta was one of the most important documents of Medieval England.

It was signed (by royal seal) between the feudal barons and King John at Runnymede near Windsor Castle. The document was a series of written promises between the king and his subjects that he, the king, would govern England and deal with its people according to the customs of feudal law. Magna Carta was an attempt by the barons to stop a king – in this case John – abusing his power with the people of England suffering.

Why would a king – who was meant to be all powerful in his own country – agree to the demands of the barons who were meant to be below him in authority ?

England had for some years owned land in France. The barons had provided the king with both money and men to defend this territory. Traditionally, the king had always consulted the barons before raising taxes (as they had to collect it) and demanding more men for military service (as they had to provide the men). This was all part of the Feudal System.

So long as English kings were militarily successful abroad, relations with the barons were good. But John was not very successful in his military campaigns abroad. His constant demands for more money and men angered the barons. By 1204, John had lost his land in northern France. In response to this, John introduced high taxes without asking the barons. This was against feudal law and accepted custom.

John made mistakes in other areas as well. He angered the Roman Catholic Church. The pope, vexed by John’s behaviour, banned all church services in England in 1207. Religion, and the fear of Hell, were very important to the people including the barons. The Catholic Church taught the people that they could only gain entrance to Heaven if the Catholic Church believed that they were good enough to get there. How could they show their goodness and love of God if the churches were shut ? Even worse for John was the fact that the pope excommunicated him in 1209. This meant that John could never get to Heaven until the pope withdrew the excommunication. Faced with this, John climbed down and accepted the power of the Catholic Church, giving them many privileges in 1214.

1214 was a disastrous year for John for another reason. Once again, he suffered military defeat in an attempt to get back his territory in northern France. He returned to London demanding more money from taxes. This time the barons were not willing to listen. They rebelled against his power. The barons captured London. However, they did not defeat John entirely and by the Spring of 1215, both sides were willing to discuss matters. The result was the Magna Carta.

What did the Magna Carta bring in?

All 63 clauses of the document can be found here.

The document can be divided into sections :

The first clauses concern the position of the Catholic Church in England.

Those that follow state that John will be less harsh on the barons.

Many of the clauses concern England’s legal system.

Magna Carta promised laws that were good and fair. It states that everyone shall have access to courts and that costs and money should not be an issue if someone wanted to take a problem to the law courts.

It also states that no freeman (i.e. a person who was not a serf) will be imprisoned or punished without first going through the proper legal system. In future years the word “freeman” was replaced by “no one” to include everybody.

The last few sections deal with how the Magna Carta would be enforced in England. Twenty five barons were given the responsibility of making sure the king carried out what was stated in the Magna Carta – the document clearly states that they could use force if they felt it was necessary. To give the Magna Carta an impact, the royal seal of King John was put on it to show people that it had his royal support. This is the largest red seal at the bottom of the Magna Carta above. In detail it looked like this :

Instating the Magna Carta

The archbishop of Canterbury organized a meeting with the barons and together they drafted the Magna Carta (then called the Articles of Barons). King John only affixed his seal to the document because he was afraid that, should he refuse, the rebellion would escalate in war. The Pope Innocent III however, after reconciling with King John, voided the Magna Carta only three weeks later. After King John died 1216 and the 9 year old King Henry III took the throne, the Magna Carta was reinstated. Since then, it has seen several revisions in 1216, 1217 and 1225

Magna Carta

King John and Magna Carta
Richard I (1189-99) had reputation for being a great soldier but spent less than 6 months in the kingdom. He taxed the realm heavily in order to pay for his participation in the Third Crusade.
John inherited no land (hence the nickname, ‘lackland’) but also a throne that was in debt. Some of his barons wanted his nephew Arthur to become king so John had captured and imprisoned in a castle in France. He was never seen or heard again. There was rumour that John had him tied to a stone and thrown into the River Seine. The barons refused to help John defend the French lands and he lost them to Philip Augustus by 1204, for which he earned a new nickname – ‘soft-sword’.
In order to raise an army of mercenaries, John had to raise taxes and use fines and legal methods to take money and land from his barons.
At the same time, he fell into dispute with the pope over the appointment of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, for which the kingdom was placed under an interdict in 1205 and John was excommunicated in 1209. The interdict meant that no Christian burials could take place or marriages – it meant that the whole country was effectively cut off from the sacraments and therefore from heaven. Understandably, all of this meant that the barons rebelled against the king. The result was forcing him to agree to Magna Carta at Runnymede.

A useful video about King John is found here.

See Historical Association Magna Carta lessons(tough for year 7! But contains useful resources that might be adapted).

Magna Carta (1215) - History bibliographies - in Harvard style

Your Bibliography: Archives.gov. 2015. Featured Document: The Magna Carta. [online] Available at: <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/> [Accessed 8 August 2015].

Bjork, R. E.

The Oxford dictionary of the Middle Ages

2010 - Oxford University Press - Oxford

In-text: (Bjork, 2010)

Your Bibliography: Bjork, R., 2010. The Oxford dictionary of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Breay, C. and Harrison, J.

Magna Carta an introduction

In-text: (Breay and Harrison, 2015)

Your Bibliography: Breay, C. and Harrison, J., 2015. Magna Carta an introduction. [online] The British Library. Available at: <http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction> [Accessed 8 August 2015].

Magna Carta - British History - HISTORY.com

In-text: (Magna Carta - British History - HISTORY.com, 2015)

Your Bibliography: HISTORY.com. 2015. Magna Carta - British History - HISTORY.com. [online] Available at: <http://www.history.com/topics/british-history/magna-carta> [Accessed 8 August 2015].

The Most Evil Men in History Bad King John

In-text: (The Most Evil Men in History Bad King John, 2013)

Your Bibliography: The Most Evil Men in History Bad King John. 2013. [video].

Turner, R. V.

The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215

2015 - History Today

In-text: (Turner, 2015)

Your Bibliography: Turner, R., 2015. The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215. History Today, 53(9), p.29.

Worcester, K.

The Meaning and Legacy of the Magna Carta

2010 - PS: Political Science & Politics

In-text: (Worcester, 2010)

Your Bibliography: Worcester, K., 2010. The Meaning and Legacy of the Magna Carta. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43(03), pp.451-456.